Buy This Vote!

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Aug. 23 2000 11:30 PM

Buy This Vote!

The Web puts democracy on sale.

34000_34651_islogo_130x20
82000_82938_onpol_small

Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Last Tuesday, an eBay user offered his vote to the highest bidder, and five copycat vote-sellers followed suit. Meanwhile, James Baumgartner, a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, had launched Vote-auction.com, an Internet marketplace for the wholesale purchase of votes. The model was simple: Recruit willing voters, auction them off in state blocs, double-check their absentee ballots for accuracy, and split the proceeds evenly. The schemes generated a lot of media attention and some sellers and buyers—the bidding on eBay reached $10,100, and Vote-auction found 200 takers in a single day.

Advertisement

But it was all over inside a week. Baumgartner shut down Vote-auction after his academic adviser received a call from the state board of elections, and he sold the content and domain name to an Austrian company. eBay pulled all six auctions after a day.

The problem is that vote-buying and -selling is clearly illegal. Every state prohibits a market in votes, and buying or selling votes in a federal election is a federal crime punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. (So far, no Internet vote-sellers have been charged.) Though Baumgartner isn't testing it, he has suggested that he could mount a defense on the grounds that money equals speech, a reference to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo, which struck down campaign spending limits and is anathema to campaign-finance reformers. In fact, a Buckley defense would fail. In 1982, the court ruled (in Brown vs. Hartlage) that buying, selling, or arranging to buy or sell votes is not constitutionally protected speech.

Baumgartner insists that votes have been for sale in America at least since 1757, when George Washington bought alcohol for every voter in his House of Burgesses district. But the reality of colonial corruption was rarely so simple. Voters were tied to each other through business and family connections, and a man was expected to vote for his patrons.

Flagrant vote-buying came into prominence with the expansion of the franchise and the rise of the political boss in the mid-1800s. Big-city machines routinely got out the vote by paying for it with cash on election morning. The practice was so common that cartoonist Thomas Nast started his career depicting it (click here for an example). On a deeper level, the machines unapologetically operated on the principle of giving favors for votes. Poor voters especially could count on food, coal, and patronage jobs as long as they voted with the boss.

By the late 1800s, reformers were sure the machines had corrupted democracy. They pushed for secret ballots and Australian ballots (as opposed to pre-marked party ballots) in part so that bosses could never be sure who voted for whom. Most political machines broke down by the 1920s, and yet a vote-buying scandal still crops up every few years. In 1996, for instance, 21 Georgians were indicted for selling their votes in a county election for $50 apiece.

Some experts saw the abortive Internet vote auctions as old-style machine politics with a high-tech twist. The chairman of the Voting Integrity Project, a conservative front group, called Vote-auction an "obscenity" and warned of a "bloodless coup." But few would disagree that the problem with money in politics today is the hundreds of millions of dollars at the top, not a few dollars at the bottom. Which is why the short-lived vote sale should be seen less as a serious act of sabotage and more as guerrilla theater.

One eBay seller confirmed that the auction of his vote was a "political prank." His original posting included the following description: "Why should the American citizen be left out? Congressmen and senators regularly sell their vote to the highest bidder. Democracy for sale!"

Baumgartner's intentions are harder to figure because he never recanted or even cracked a smile, but his sense of irony is undeniable. According to Baumgartner, the biggest spenders invariably win elections today, but they do it messily, with big advertising budgets and paid consultants. Vote-auction, he claimed, would bring market efficiency to the electoral process by "cutting out the middle man." Vote-auction's slogan? "Bringing Democracy and Capitalism Closer Together."

Ralph Nader's now-famous MasterCard parody makes the same point (click here to see the ad), as did the protesters outside the conventions when they offered delegates money for their credentials. Many campaign-finance reformers, including Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics and American University law professor Jamin Raskin, have said they appreciate the vote-selling sentiment, though they would deplore the practice.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.